When Two Words Become a Compound Word

I love getting to head into the labyrinth of language on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! Today’s topic is compound words.

Recently I was reading a fabulous short story by a fellow writer and noticed that she had typed “cellphone.” Thinking that I’d always seen it as “cell phone,” I looked it up. Guess what? The American Copy Editors Society gave in to common usage back in 2011 and began to simply use “cellphone” in publications. So “cellphone” is now the accepted word!

Photo from Microsoft Word Clipart

How is a compound word formed? A compound words is comprised of two distinct words to form a new word. Sometimes, the compound is intentionally created to name something with characteristics of both words–such as dragonfly or steamboat. Other times, two words are uttered together so often that they become a single word, such as babysitting and lighthearted.

Why use compound words? Compound words are handy in saving time, for one thing. Instead of saying, “place of work” or “loaf of meat” or “mate from class,” we say “workplace,” “meatloaf,” and “classmate.” Those roll off the tongue faster and easier.

Second, we immediately catch two characteristics of an item in one word. For instance, even if you had never heard these words before, you would immediately understand their meaning: “zookeeper,” “farmhouse,” “shipwreck,” “heartsick.” Two words come together to easily define a new concept–one that is distinct from its separate parts but understandable because of those parts.

Plus, some compound words communicate ideas in a more colorful way. Have you noticed that quite a few cuss words are compound words? There are less profane examples such as “loudmouth” and “daredevil” and “killjoy” and “cutthroat.”

How do you know if a word is a compound word? The crazy thing is that we’re always inventing new compound words. So whereas, we used to have “web site,” it’s now “website.” What typically happens with word formation is that new words or forms of a word get tried out in slang. Publications do not follow slang trends because some stick and some go away. When a word or word form gets so often in slang usage that it becomes common usage, the Word Gods on High (also known as the Oxford English Dictionary folks) finally recognize the word and slap it into the dictionary.

Photo from Microsoft Word Clipart

Or a word might be adopted before then by other associations (such as the American Copy Editors mentioned above) and suddenly become accepted for publication.

Until then, your safest bet: Look it up. Don’t assume it’s “jerkface.” It might still be “jerk face,” or that awkward, in-between version of “jerk-face.” (By the way, it’s not “jerkface.”) Try Oxford Dictionaries Online, Merriam-Webster, or Dictionary.com.

What are some recently added compound words? Well, you can now safely use the following, which at some point in our recent past, you couldn’t.


What other examples should become compound words? Who knows! I have my own suggestions. For instance, I suggested Legonavigate as a new word meaning “To pick out a path and walk around Legos strewn across the floor in an effort to keep from stepping on those building blocks and cursing the Danes. “I had to Legonavigate his room to reach the dresser.” That would be a compound word, right?

I’d also be in favor of creating the word “highschool” since I’m already weary of typing the two words all the time.

How about “mindmeld”? Vulcans have been performing mind melds on TV since 1966, so maybe it’s time to start making that concept into one word.

I know it would be a rather long word, but perhaps “electionfatigue” is a concept most of us  relate to. It rolls right off my lips.

One more idea would be the simple word: “dietscam.” You and I see them all the time, right? Why isn’t that a single word by now?

Would you like to add any compound words to our common usage? Do you have any favorite compound words? Are you confused about whether a certain concept is two words or a compound?

Sources: Enchanted Learning; Mental Floss; Grammarist 

19 thoughts on “When Two Words Become a Compound Word

  1. Most of my favorite compounds words are cusswords. My favorite is @sshat.

    This is not the same, but in the last year, I have adopted the habit of using hashtags to express emotions. Examples: #sickofthiscrap, #amdepressed, #boringsucks

  2. Catie’s right, some of the best ones are insults! Or maybe they’re just what’s coming to mind first, as I’m working on a YA book. My daughter’s favorite is “turd burglar,” which IMO should be one word. (Technically, this is someone who tries to walk in on you in the bathroom, but it works as a general insult.) Fun topic!

  3. Great post. I’m always wondering whether a pair of words is a compound word or not yet. Thanks for the resources for the proofreading process. Yay, Grammar Queen. 🙂

  4. The best source I guess is the dictionary now? Since they keep adding new compound words, where do you go to keep current?

    1. The Oxford English Dictionary is the definitive English dictionary. However, I would just Google the word both ways and see what you come up with. If it’s coming up as a compound words on several dictionary, editing, and newspaper websites, you can use it with confidence.

    1. Good question! I have a half-drafted post on hyphens that will likely be finished and go up in January. But the basics are: (1) Look it up. I often look up compound words to see if they might be hyphenated or even one word, like the noun “breakup”.The dictionary’s where I usually start. (2) The more common the use of two words together, the more likely they are hyphenated (or simply one word), such as “self-esteem” and “well-being”–though not always (e.g., “body image”). (3) Hyphens are more often used when the two words appear as a verb or an adjective in a sentence, like “dry-clean that coat,” “air-condition my house,” “a brown-eyed girl,” “short-term memory.” (4) Numbers and measurements usually include a hyphen, such as “one-third,” “two-story building,” “twenty-first century.”

      Hope these very general guidelines help, Jennifer! There’s more to it, but this is a good place to start. Thanks for coming by!

  5. how about Mikey Mouse, Capten Hook, Grandma Duck and other characters’ name. are they compound word?

    1. No, they’re not. Since they are typically a title or identifier (Mouse/Captain/Grandma) and then a given name (Mickey/Hook/Duck), they are simply two-word names for someone. Like President Obama is just President Obama. Thanks for stopping by!

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